NASA Is Studying a Private Mission to Boost Hubble’s Orbit. Is It Worth the Risk?

NASA Is Studying a Private Mission to Boost Hubble’s Orbit. Is It Worth the Risk?

For more than three decades ,, the Hubble Space Telescope has been a pioneer in astronomy and cosmology, delivering results that few other facilities can match, let alone surpass. NASA astronauts have performed a series repairs and servicing missions that have enabled the Hubble Space Telescope to achieve such high performance over so many years.

NASA staged five space shuttle missions to Hubble in low-Earth orbit between 1993 and 2009 to upgrade science instruments, replace failed systems and boost Hubble’s orbit, which naturally decays over time because of friction against the tenuous outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. The space shuttle program ended, and Hubble began a slow but steady descent towards Earth. Without further intervention, NASA officials say the telescope has a 50 percent chance of falling back into the atmosphere in 2037.

Now however, there is a new hope for Hubble from commercial spaceflight. Jared Isaacman, an entrepreneur and private astronaut, is preparing to fly one of SpaceX’s Dragon capsules to Hubble to boost the orbit. This will be done at little to no cost to taxpayers. Isaacman told Scientific American that he believes it would be a great idea to do science and research around the world.

The proposed rendezvous is part of the Isaacman-funded, -led Polaris Program. It is expected to culminate in the first crewed voyage aboard Starship (a huge multipurpose, reusable space transport system currently being developed by SpaceX). For the Polaris kickoff mission, slated to launch in March of 2023 aboard a Dragon spacecraft, Isaacman and three crewmates plan to conduct a spacewalk–a first by private astronauts–and to break the high-altitude record for a crewed spacecraft in Earth orbit, set in 1966 by Gemini 11.

NASA is already heavily invested in SpaceX, a company which has quickly risen to the top of the global spaceflight market. When the agency staged its fifth and final space-shuttle servicing call to Hubble in May 2009, SpaceX was still a year away from the first flight of its Falcon 9 rocket, and three years away from the first docking of a Dragon capsule at the International Space Station. Today, SpaceX is approaching its 200th launch–70 percent of which were on rockets that had been recovered and reflown. Dragon capsules have docked at the station 33 times with cargo and crews, including a private charter for Houston-based Axiom Space. And in 2021, SpaceX also completed one free-flying crewed Dragon mission–Isaacman’s first spaceflight, named Inspiration4.

After the California Institute of Technology, which operates the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA, the U.S. space agency now annually spends more money with SpaceX–upwards of $2 billion in fiscal 2022 alone–than on any other organization. SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk, is responsible for crew ferry flights and station cargo runs. It also holds NASA contracts to launch high priority science projects such as the Europa Clipper mission, which is estimated to cost more than $2 billion. SpaceX also has cargo flights to cislunar orbit; and a demonstration of Starship transport services to land astronauts on the moon’s surface. This is part of the agency’s Artemis program.

SpaceX offers launch services to the U.S. military and commercial customers, as well as foreign governments. SpaceX also manufactures, launches, and operates its own space-based broadband services, Starlink. Starlink is already the largest satellite constellation in the world. More than 3,000 Starlink satellites are now in low-Earth orbit, and SpaceX has approval from the Federal Communications Commission to expand the network with nearly 9,000 more.

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This image from April 24, 2021, shows the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour as it approached the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

All of this is why NASA took Isaacman’s proposal for a Dragon mission to Hubble seriously when SpaceX pitched it to them. As a first step, the space agency on September 22 signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement with SpaceX to launch a six-month feasibility study. “We’re working on crazy ideas all the time,” NASA’s science chief Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters during a September 29 conference call. “We’re always supposed push the envelope, and that is really compelling .”

NASA hoped that its final shuttle-servicing mission to Hubble would extend the observatory’s life to at least 2014, by which time its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), was expected to launch. Although JWST ended up not flying until December 2021, Hubble held on. NASA now expects Hubble to remain operational into the 2030s without any further servicing missions. “We are able to predict what [the] problems will be, and begin working on those issues before they happen,” Patrick Crouse, Hubble’s project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Engineers have developed techniques to point Hubble, lock on targets, and even use onboard guidance hardware if it fails. The observatory currently has three out of six spacecraft-orienting geoscopes in operation. However, all remaining are upgraded and more robust than the ones that have been retired.

” We have many components that are beyond their expected life due to radiation dosage or other issues that could cause them to fail. We have a fair amount redundancy… and we project that radiation will cause some degradation. However, it would not be a sudden failure of systems. “I think it’ll be a horse race, if we’re able to make it out to the 2030s, between the gyros and the fine guidance sensors,” he added.

Hubble is in a declining orbit. This is another matter. The telescope has drifted downward by more than 30 kilometers since its last boost in 2009, when NASA’s final servicing mission lifted it to an altitude of 564 kilometers.

SpaceX proposes to boost Hubble into a significantly higher orbit somewhere between 600 and 610 kilometers above Earth. Barbara Grofic, program manager for NASA Goddard’s Astrophysics Projects Division will oversee the study. It will evaluate Dragon’s technical capabilities as well as potential risks to Hubble.

The six-member, all-Goddard study team, appointed on October 19, also will consider potential additional services Dragon could provide beyond raising Hubble’s orbit. Crouse states that they have not looked at any specific items at this point.

Dragon may not be the only U.S. spacecraft capable reaching Hubble. Northrop Grumman and Boeing, as well as Sierra Space, have or are currently developing spacecraft suitable for missions in low Earth orbit. NASA had previously studied the possibility of flying an Orion capsule to Hubble in years past. “We will look at any and all options that are in the interest of the taxpayer,” Zurbuchen said during the September 29 briefing.

While NASA was unable to predict the future, it ended the shuttle program and laid the foundation for other spacecraft to visit Hubble. The telescope was outfitted with a docking circle and navigation targets by the last servicing crew so that a vehicle without an arm could attach directly to Hubble. (Shuttle missions grappled the telescope with a 15-meter-long arm, then mounted the observatory on a work platform in the orbiter’s cargo bay for servicing by spacewalking astronauts. )

NASA decided that Hubble would need to return to Earth at the end its life, but not by astronauts. Another rendezvous would be to place a propulsion module that could guide the telescope’s descent into the atmosphere or propel it into a stable, high altitude graveyard orbit. This mission would minimize any collateral damage to Hubble’s death, regardless of whether it falls to Earth or lingers high above the Earth.

“We’re going to need to go to Hubble in the next 15 years or so because you would like to have either a controlled entry or a boost up,” says Scott Altman, a former astronaut who commanded the last two Hubble servicing missions.

“Bottom line is, first do no harm. Altman, now president of Beltsville-based ASRC Federal, an engineering consultancy and service provider, says that we have a great observatory. “The most important thing I learned from Hubble was to slow down and be steady. Slow and steady wins this race

NASA could decide to reject SpaceX’s proposal. Hubble is well-operating and orbital decay is not an urgent concern. Even if a Dragon mission is technically feasible and low-risk, there could be a problem at the observatory that pushes the flight out of the Polaris Program’s time frame.

John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and NASA science chief, is suggesting that NASA use a Dragon reboost to collect data for future servicing calls by Starship, Dragon, or other vehicles.

” One of the discussions that I had with SpaceX was to use Starship – it has such capability, it can add airlocks and new instruments, and other big stuff -to grab Hubble and bring it back, refurbish and put it back together again,” Grunsfeld said.

” I have not looked into the details but I believe that a Dragon reboot would be relatively low-risk – if that’s what they do,” he says. There is a chance that if you dock too hard, you could damage something like a solar array. Hubble was not designed to be as strong as the International Space Station .”

Adds Isaacman: “There are many things that will need figured out. I thin

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